CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cornel West has the habit of calling everyone “brother” and “sister,” even when his words connote something far removed from brotherly love. That was true for Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama, two objects of his attention and criticism, in a combination speech and sermon to a friendly college crowd.
After speaking to a packed auditorium at Queens University of Charlotte Monday night, West earned an ovation; earlier he had lightened the mood with mock lofty impressions of the president. “There are no problems we cannot solve because we are Americans,” said West as Obama, layering his own skepticism over the optimistic sentiment. “America is a magical place,” the interpretation continued, but only — West as West continued — because “people fight to make it free, people fight to keep it free.”
Winfrey got away relatively unscathed, credited by West as an “entrepreneurial genius,” albeit one who doesn’t “specialize in political courage,” a cautious nod, he said, to her market, middle-class “white sisters.” The Rev. Al Sharpton — “we go back 30 years” — received condolences on the recent death of his mother and an acknowledgment of disagreements over the Obama presidency. “Recently we had some nice critical exchanges,” said West.
The author and academic — sometimes partnered with talk-show host Tavis Smiley in a tour to spotlight America’s poor — is used to making headlines for his sharp critiques of the president’s policies. “Black folks want to protect him by any means,” West said, and they complain that any words against the president just help the right wing. West said his answer is to always preface a critique by saying it has “nothing to do with the right-wing attacks.” Some of the inoculation against the right-wing comes with its own an acid touch. (Obama a Socialist? Not with Cabinet member Tim Geithner, “straight from Wall Street,” according to West.)
West offered that distancing preface on Monday, before going on to disapprove of drone attacks on Pakistan that he said “drop bombs on innocent children” and lament the rising number of deportations of undocumented immigrants under President Obama. West said that on some issues, he makes common cause with unexpected allies. Along with Libertarian Ron Paul, West opposes the Patriot Act, and even “brother” Rush Limbaugh has “a right to be wrong,” he said.
“I like to cut against the grain,” he said.
West reminded the crowd that the revered Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered “a dangerous man” when he was “alive and kicking, organizing poor people and opposing the Vietnam War.
In a speech that mixed references to Socrates and crooner Keith Sweat with a nod to North Carolina’s jazzman John Coltrane, West labeled himself “a revolutionary Christian and deep democrat,” with “a jazz sensibility.” He praised the members of 100 Black Men of Charlotte and its college group in the audience for their mentoring and guidance to young people, and spoke of one young man in particular.
When West resumes his tour with Smiley, one he said he insisted begin on a Native American reservation, it will coincide with the national conversation about the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and the search for truth and justice in the case.
West placed the Martin case in the context of the 1955 murder in Mississippi of Emmett Till, the “14-year-old brother with that beautiful smile.”
“Why is it black folks haven’t created the black al-Qaeda?” he asked, after being terrorized for so long. He quoted the sentiment of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie: “I don't have a minute to hate; I'll pursue justice for the rest of my life.”
Despite modern times that are less racist, West said, that’s very different from post-racial.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3